Spoilers to follow for Zack Snyder’s Justice League!
I wasn’t originally planning to even watch Zack Snyder’s Justice League (a.k.a. the Snyder Cut). Like a million people before me have said, I wasn’t particularly interested in watching a four-hour cut of a movie that wasn’t good in the first place and was preceded by one of the worst superhero movies in recent memory. But once the social media reactions and Rotten Tomatoes scores for ZSJL started to roll in, I figured I might as well rewatch Batman v Superman (the aforementioned “worst superhero movie”) for the first time. And once I decided that I like BvS after all, I decided to give ZSJL a chance.
Now, I’m not going to spend much time in this review comparing ZSJL to 2017’s Justice League (affectionately dubbed “Josstice League” by its biggest fans) because, to be honest, I saw it once, thought it was bad, and haven’t given it much thought since. I don’t even remember enough of what happened to make many comparisons.
Part of what’s so great about ZSJL is the way it stands on its own. It’s a natural followup to BvS and doesn’t feel so tonally dissonant. And the consistent tone is established right from the jump. It opens with a slow motion, CGI-heavy look around the scene of Superman’s death as Junkie XL’s somber score pulls you in to the moment. For all of the overused criticisms of director Zack Snyder’s filmmaking, this film feels like he said, “Screw all that noise, I’m making this exactly how I want to.” Because out of all the Zack Snyder films in the world, this is the Zack Snyderiest.
Seemingly half of the film in slow motion? Check. Dozens of shots of various superheroes looking as cool as possible? Double check. A slow motion extreme close-up of a poppy seed? Check! In the past, this stuff probably would have bothered me, but these days, I really find myself digging Snyder’s self-serious, over-the-top, operatic take on these larger-than-life DC Comics icons. Not everything needs to be compared to Marvel, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate a mainstream take on comic book characters that’s done well and wholly different from the MCU.
One of my main nitpicks of BvS is that it feels like there is so much going on plot-wise, but I still don’t feel like I’m in the psyche of either of the main characters. I understand their motivations, but even with the Ultimate Edition, they still don’t feel fleshed out enough. But the main strength of the Snyder Cut is that it includes a full arc and story for each of our six main heroes. It’s not just six of Earth’s mightiest heroes coming together because there’s a threat that needs to be taken care of. Instead, there’s a specific reason why joining (or trying to form) the Justice League is exactly what the character needs at this moment in their arc.
First off, Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) is given plenty of development after his first and only appearance is a Flash Player file from BvS. His backstory is fleshed out and we learn of his mother’s tragic death and his father’s neglectful behavior. Plus, he’s mostly machine, which makes him an outcast. He looks at the way he’s different from others and sees it as a deformity and a reason why he can never fit in — he thinks of himself as broken. For a movie as big and bombastic as ZSJL, you don’t really expect there to be as tender or gentle a look at a character as what Cyborg gets. But the script is patient with his development and takes its time to not only endear him to the audience, but to set him up as someone who deserves the hope and change that he receives. In what will become a theme, a lot of what makes Victor so compelling is Fisher’s performance. After basically emerging from obscurity, Fisher has made a true name for himself, even though three of his seven IMDb credits are DCEU flicks. He has true talent and I hope the movie industry gets to see more of him.
The Flash/Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) is the only other member of the JL who hasn’t been a main character in a DCEU movie up to this point. And even though he has a smaller arc than Cyborg (who feels like the centerpiece to the whole movie at times), it’s still full and fleshed out. His father is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit (the murder of Barry’s mother) and because of this, Barry wants to get into criminal justice. But his father all but begs him to go in a different direction and make his own way in life, apart from fighting for justice for his dad. And by the end, in a great moment both visually and emotionally, Barry runs so fast that it alters time and he literally makes his own future. It’s the type of moment that would make me want to stand up and clap if I’d seen it in a theater. And Miller’s performance is what sells the character completely. Seeing the totality of what the character was meant to be shows that they really were the perfect casting choice. They bring the humor that I loved about The Flash as a kid watching Justice League cartoons, but they also deliver those deep, devastating moments that they’ve shown off in the past in movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and The Stanford Prison Experiment.
Aquaman/Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), and Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) have the least to do out of our heroes, but I’ll get to Cavill in a bit. Aquaman and Wonder Woman have similar arcs to their standalone movies. Even though, ZSJL takes place before Aquaman, it’s still exploring similar themes for the character. He’s half human and half Atlantean which causes him to feel like he never quite fits in anywhere so he chooses to be alone. At the same time, he’s rightful king of Atlantis, which he doesn’t want, even though he’s constantly going out of his way to save people who are in trouble. Of course, joining the Justice League helps him find somewhere that he really does fit and is accepted for who he is. It’s also that necessary step before his solo movie that shows him he can be a part of something bigger that helps those in need. This is an important prerequisite to taking the mantle of king. Diana is still holding onto her past with Steve Trevor from Wonder Woman (2017) and has been operating alone, much like Aquaman. But after she connects with Bruce in BvS, she is revitalized and becomes a strong influence on the forming of this team.
And then there’s Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck). His is my favorite arc of the movie, and it completes what was started in BvS. So much of the backlash against BvS seemed to be an uproar against the fact that Batman killed and branded people and, “THAT’S NOT BATMAN!!!” ZSJL shows that the events and actions of the previous movie were all part of a larger story and study of the character of Bruce. His line, “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to divide us. I need to bring us together and make this right,” encapsulates his entire character perfectly. After spending so much of BvS trying to violently take down Superman because of his anger and rage, seeing Superman inspire hope to the world has inspired hope in Bruce.
Bruce does a lot of smiling, and while that may seem irrelevant, it shows that Batman has a different aura about him in this movie than what we’re used to seeing. He’s not grim, dark, or grumpy like he’s made out to be so often, but is hopeful and driven to help save the world from the oncoming attack simply because he has faith in something bigger than himself. Like he tells Alfred, “for once I’m operating strictly on faith, not on reason.” It’s a version of the character that we haven’t seen — live action at least — probably since Adam West.
And the same goes for Superman. So much of the criticism I’ve heard over the years about why people don’t like Man of Steel or BvS is because of what Superman is “supposed to be.” I understand the attachment to characters and what they’ve stood for over time, but I prefer to let a movie come to me. I’ll criticize it if it doesn’t stand up to the rules it sets up internally, but if it’s not faithful to what fans want it to be or to what the source material is, that doesn’t really irk me. I’m all for creative visions from filmmakers, especially when it comes to something like Superman where there’s very likely going to be a sequel. Because there’s a very clear arc for both Superman and Batman in these movies. Visually, they’re Batman and Superman, but thematically, they’re not quite what we know them to be. But ZSJL is so hopeful and uplifting in part because these characters have finally come into their own and evolved into what we think they should be. It’s completely triumphant at the end when Junkie XL’s rendition of Hans Zimmer’s Superman theme plays during his fight with Steppenwolf. It’s everything you hope for as a fan of these characters — superman is finally the good savior that we know and love.
Bruce almost functions as a John the Baptist type. He’s imploring the other characters that Superman can and will come back to bring salvation from the existential threat from outside. And Superman’s return really is Christlike. He was the symbol of hope that was killed when the world thought it needed him most, but he came back at the perfect moment. Sort of like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, Clark knew he had special abilities, but he needed to learn why he was on Earth and what he could do to help humanity. Upon his return, he finally discovers the meaning he’s been looking for. (And, might I add, his return is much better than the portals scene in Avengers: Endgame.)
As a whole, this is a perfect wrap-up to Snyder’s DC trilogy. Man of Steel is still my favorite, but ZSJL and BvS just continue to grow on me. I can see myself getting a hankering for these three films and popping them on once a year or so.
But at the same time I don’t really think you can judge ZSJL as a normal movie. Because if you did, there would be a host of problems to talk about. There is the overuse of Wonder Woman’s theme, the thin motivations for both Darkseid and Steppenwolf, poor CGI in some scenes (especially Wonder Woman’s story about the people of Earth coming together to fight Darkseid, which looks entirely like a video game cutscene), the MacGuffin plot about Mother Boxes, and Snyder overdoing his visual flair at times. Last but not least, it feels like it could have been trimmed.
This is where you inherently run into a problem, though. There is way too much setup and the pacing is off in the first third of the movie, but this only ever happened because of how Warner Bros. absolutely screwed this production. Ideally, this movie would have been split into two with more installments to follow. Because as a casual fan, this is a chore to get through. While I love all the character development and meant everything I said earlier about how important Cyborg and Flash’s stories are, I almost forgot about the drama from the first half of the movie while I was following the action of the second half.
Marvel was the first studio to do a shared cinematic universe with the MCU and they’ve done it almost perfectly. But I don’t think theirs is the only way to do it and I’m not at all saying there needed to be standalone movies for each character before Justice League came out. I just wish the executives at WB were less fickle (to put it kindly) and let Snyder tell the story he wanted to, the way he wanted to. Because with ZSJL, they obviously stumbled onto something legitimately good. As I mentioned, there are flaws aplenty, but I still think Zack Snyder’s Justice League is a very good movie, and is even teetering on being great.
Of course, at the end, Snyder seemed to completely empty the tank. There are 20 to 30 minutes of what should have been post-credits scenes, but were tacked on to the film itself. In any normal case, I’d count this against the movie, but this definitely isn’t a normal scenario so I can’t look at it in the same way. But Snyder had more that he wanted to do and it doesn’t look like he’ll ever get the chance with WB.
Whether or not that’s right doesn’t have anything to do with it, because the studio system is happy to chew up directors and filmmaker visions and then spit something out, hoping that it makes money. And there is obviously an army of loyal Snyder fans who will continue to make their voices heard. But instead of fighting for more artistic output from one filmmaker, I hope this inspires people to create for themselves. There are fans who feel strongly about certain characters and genres and they want to see a creative vision fulfilled after the mistreatment of an artist, and I get that — Snyder should never have been ousted in the first place, and especially shouldn’t have been smeared like he was when by all indications he is a well-intentioned person who was dealing with a horrific family tragedy.
But the Snyder Cut came out — it’s here and fans can watch it as much as they want. I just hope it inspires them to make their own movies or create their own art. When I watch, read, see, or experience a piece of art that moves me deeply, I want to go see what I can do. And ZSJL even did that for me to a certain extent. It inspired creative ideas in my own head. If the right person is inspired by the right idea, we could have the next Zack Snyder coming down the pipeline creating something with their own unique vision and voice.
All in all, I’m happy ZSJL exists after all. I went from a Snyder skeptic to a Snyder believer in the process of rewatching BvS and watching ZSJL. He’s a unique filmmaker who has things to say and knows how to say them in a way that doesn’t work for a lot of people, but when it does work, I think he’s able to create films that are truly triumphant. And “triumphant” is probably the best word to use to describe this movie. It’s finally here, the villain is defeated by the heroes, and fans can rejoice.